Review by ShadowGuardian9

"Lock and Load!"

The shooter genre has become a limping soldier coming out of battle to some players, and I am one of them. We've seen so many shooters that manage to scrape by on renovated concepts and simply use the by-the-book systems that many have gotten away with for years. I had lost hope in the shooter genre…but then the gears started turning. Gears of War, that is. Gears of War has long since been a well-kept secret for Epic Games, constantly citing influences and showing footage without gameplay. Fortunately, when E3 rolled around, gamers were stunned by Epic Games tried-and-true shooter. You don't dodge in Gears of War, you take cover. Gears of War hit the Xbox 360 in 2006, but did the well-kept secret deliver on its promising past?

Gears of War begins with anti-hero Marcus Fenix being pardoned from jailtime from a rag-tag group of soldiers. Apparently, Marcus is a criminal and in exchange for a pardon from the government, he must fight the underground hordes called the Locust. Marcus teams up with Delta Squad and sets off on an interesting, though traditionally told legacy. The story manages to stay in the shadow of games like Halo, but the characters are engaging and the banter between them is entertaining to say the least. It's not a brand-new idea, but it's interesting and fairly well-told.

Gears of War is a tactical-shooter, but it doesn't necessarily flaunt either of those marks. In fact, it really is unlike any previous tactical-shooter before it. There's tactics involved, but Gears of War is still a shooter first and foremost and while it's a shooter first, it's not a first-person shooter. Instead of taking place from the eyes of the brooding protagonist, it appears to be a third-person shooter. But naming Gears of War just that is also incorrect. As Cliffy B. has stated for a long time, this is “second-person,” an over-the-shoulder camera lets the player aim and move in two different perspectives. In homage to Resident Evil 4's control scheme, holding the left trigger lets the player zoom in on targets, sacrificing speed for accuracy. The player can always shoot using the right trigger, whether in aiming mode or not. This is all pretty groundbreaking for a dynamic shooting game, but it's the defensive tactics that make Gears of War a blast to play.

Using the A button and the surroundings, players can get Marcus to sidle up against walls, barriers, and obstacles to avoid cover fire. Evasive actions range from rolling across a battlefield to blindfiring around a corner. These tactics, cited as homage to the old PS2 game kill.switch, add an interesting set of balances in the already incredible control scheme. I grew up wondering why FPS characters don't back up against a wall or duck behind obstacles, and while it wasn't possible then and there, it is possible in Gears of War, and you'll be doing it a lot. It's practically essential. Marcus can't take too many hits, but fortunately there are plenty of opportunities to use cover throughout. The defense is fast-paced and still manages to overcome a lot of the shortcomings that the simple offensive combat completes. It can get a bit repetitive, just a little bit, but it still manages to be a rockin' good time with plenty of unique gameplay tweaks and surprises.

One incredibly impressive aspect of Gears of War is the subtle inclusions that make the game that much better. One of the best, widely regarded as a groundbreaking and creative move, is the Active Reload, a quick microgame that lets you test your reflexes in reloading your weapon. Pressing the right bumper starts a moving line on a meter below the ammunition window. Timing the line when it appears over the white area not only lets you reload faster, but with extra damage to boot. Timing it incorrectly makes the gun jam, costing valuable seconds for combat. This is easily one of the most creative and fun inclusions, and compliments the high intensity world of Gears of War by rewarding excellent twitch skills. You'll be doing it a lot, but it's fun. Other subtle inclusions like holding the Y button to pinpoint essential mission points and/or fallen teammates or the ominous Crimson Omen signifying wounds instead of a simple health meter are all welcome and inventive inclusions that make the game that much more appealing. Gears of War is far beyond the sum of its parts, which brings new and interesting twists to the already tried-and-true shooter genre.

To say the absolute least, Gears of War is a bloody mess, but in a good way. It takes the “M for Mature” label and wears it proudly. Looking for exploding bodies, chainsaw decapitations, and lifeless bodies wherever you go? Gears of War satisfies that guilt deep inside. One of the most violence assertive of moments is the Lancer's chainsaw bayonet, a rumbling death machine that lets you cut through an up-close enemy right down the middle for a quick kill. Not since Resident Evil 4 has a chainsaw been used in such creativity and gory style. It's unquestionably violent, but Gears of War is so assertive in its violence that it becomes part of its charm. It's that insane.

The single-player is challenging to say the least. The Casual difficulty that is available at first is pretty straightforward, but the next one up, Hardcore, is thoroughly difficult even for shooters. But the game rewards clever thinking and good reflexes. The duck-and-cover combat is fresh and full of unique tweaks, so you want to press through the pain and keep on fighting. Also, the multiplayer is strong and plentiful with players. The game introduces some fun new multiplayer games, and it manages to breathe on strong team play. Healing partners and allies is quick and efficient and makes the multiplayer a very strong aspect in Gears of War's arsenal. Plug in some amazing achievements and awesome co-op play and you get one of the most original and creative shooters seen in a long, long time.

Technically, few games can rival Gears of War. It's hands-down one of the best looking 360 games, and could even compete with the PS3's games. On HDTV's, it's breathtaking. The ashen colors of the Locust-torn earth are downright phenomenal, and there's just enough ambiance to keep the scare factor on minimal. The blood shimmers with a fluorescent crimson mix and the death-scenes are unforgettable. Use the chainsaw and you'll see what I mean. The environments could've used a bit more variety, but Gears of War still stands tall as a graphical marvel. Sound-wise, you get long-time voice actor John DiMaggio as brooding hero Marcus Fenix, and although some of the death scenes are a bit obscure for Marcus (his death cry can sound a bit weird), he does a great job on the top protagonist. The rest of the voice actors do an equally good job and the story is deliverable, even though it's a bit unoriginal.

+ Beautiful graphics
+ Good soundtrack
+ Gameplay is unique and inventive
+ Near constant action
+ Fun and ferocious multiplayer

- Not much diversity in the weapons or areas
- Difficulty is pretty uneven

Gears of War could wisely be referred to as the first real next-generation game to come out for the Xbox 360, but it also manages to make some astoundingly creative moves to diversify it from the rest of the shooter pack. The fact that Epic Games has emulated real-life tactics the way it has in Gears of War is downright phenomenal, but topping it off with such high production values and visceral action is incredible. Even the most subtle of touches like the Active Reload make serious difference in the high-intensity world of Gears of War. Although the story and difficulty may clash at times, and it's not the most visually creative of games, it's safe to say that no game has pushed the envelope the way Gears of War does. It's unquestionably epic, has plenty of gore, and is groundbreaking gameplay-wise while it's at it. If you are of appropriate age and aren't scared of a little…ahem…blood, Gears of War is a fun and action-packed experience unlike any other on the market today. It's not flawless, but it's loads of fun and well worth a serious purchase to anyone with a 360.

Reviewer's Rating:   4.5 - Outstanding

Originally Posted: 12/21/07

Game Release: Gears of War (US, 11/07/06)

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